It was August of 1995. I do not remember the exact date though. My homeland Shillong had by that time become a favourite hub of ultras from across the North eastern region. Our house was in an area that was about five minutes from the Central Jail. The Police Reserve was also a stone’s throw and so was the CRPF camp. (When things heated up at the turn of the millennium, the location of our house was a major disadvantage on at least around 15th August. There were rebels of the local outfight firing rounds at the CRPF camp and we cowering in fear.) We would also joke about prison breaks and jail birds taking refuge in one of our homes in pure filmy style.
We had a Physics class test in school and I had studied into the night and woke up reasonably late. My mother knew science subjects weren’t my strength and offered to plait my hair. The house was one of those typical wooden structures they make in the hills and the earthquake prone regions. Our living room had a set of windows that faced the road and there I was with Mom, she combing my hair and I hoping the teacher would bunk school.
‘Daku, daku’, we heard a neighbour call out. I did not bother to look out at first; the particular neighbour was a famous drunkard. Most of us thought he was hallucinating. And then we heard the sound of feet; running down the stairs. (The typical stairs that qualify as roads in hill stations). At first it was as if a shepherd was running down with his fleet of sheep. But we soon realized it was something else. To our horror we looked out. And there they were, running down, pointing their automatic rifles to anyone who was out on the road or in their verandas. It was probably for less than a couple of minutes. They climbed down the stairs and reached the level road (about half a minute from my house) and sped away in a waiting taxi.
Speculation was in the air. Who were these men? Was it a prison break? Were they assassins? The elderly gentleman next door was just returning from the morning market and recalled how they had pointed a gun at him. A few people also vouched to have recognized the faces of the men. Rumour mills started working overtime. Morning walkers said they had seen the taxi waiting since the wee hours. We were clueless. The police did not come. There were little children who were on their way to school and were on the way of the rebels. Some parents were coming back with their distressed kids. There would be no school for them that day.
I and my little brother would be in that party of school goers too. But on that particular day a special bus service was supposed to start that would carry kids from our locality and drop them to schools. We were to take that bus and could afford to be a little late.
Since everything was peaceful by then, Dad, I and my brother were on our way with the other speculative faces. We climbed the stairs and reached the level road and saw another taxi. The rebels must have taken that taxi while fleeing the Central Jail and abandoned it as they would have to run down the stairs to catch the connecting taxi. There was a used cartridge (the first I had seen) and bread crumbs. Anxious parents did not want us to see any of it. And then it happened again. Another set of men with automatic rifles were approaching us. We ran to all possible directions. In the confusion I lost track of my brother. He was in 1st standard. We had taken shelter in a house and I was weeping. I had no idea where he was!
After about five minutes of horror we were assured that everything was okay. When I came out, my faced blotched, I found him. My brother was too little to realize what had happened and was smiling. The men who had come were actually commandoes in civil clothes. But the fear got the better of us. Police assured us that it was a prison break and all would be okay. We went to school. Shillong had seen too many bouts of violence, curfews, ethnic clashes etc. Life had to move on.
The physics teacher bunked school and there was no class test after all. I told my friends at school all about it and no one believed. That evening the Doordarshan bulletin at 7 pm in the evening read about how Dilash Marak and Jerome Ch Momin of the A’chik Liberation Matgrik Army (ALMA) and HNLC leaders Cheristarfield Thangkhiew and Bobby Marwein escaped the Shillong Central jail. Also with them were two rebels of NSCN – Isak Muivah group. The ANVC was formed the same year and the HNLC was to show us the dark days of Meghalaya. One recent report says Meghalaya has seen 32 prison breaks since 1989.
That day not a bullet was fired. But there was fear in the air. Now when the NSCN (not Muivah group though) the days of horror have come back to haunt. For someone who has learned to differentiate between the sounds of a faraway bullet from that of fire crackers; it is never easy to eulogize terrorists. For someone who has seen a bullet pierce into the house of a dear family friend, terror is not romantic. There is no justification to terror. Yes, the government that was formed after independence failed to recognize the North east, but why should I or another other civilian be the collateral damage?
There was a lot of outrage and snide comments over the Myanmar operation. Why are people silent now that Khumlo Abi Anal (of NSCN- K) is arrested? The arrest is not important enough since he is responsible for killing men in uniform? For people who write one sided narratives of atrocities by men in uniform should look for first person narratives of people who have suffered in the ring of fire. I felt safe because I knew the CRPF camp was just a stone’s throw and would come to save us. And I know there are many more who felt the same. People talk about civilians affected by AFSPA. No one talks about us. We are civilians too. We had sleepless nights too. Our folks were killed too. …
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